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In King County, pollution makes ZIP codes predictors of your health

Published on November 10, 2020

Looking south on 14th Avenue South from just east of the South Park Bridge, South Park, Seattle.
Looking south on 14th Avenue South from just east of the South Park Bridge, South Park, Seattle. Image Credit: Joe Mabel (CC ASA 3.0)

In Seattle, a ZIP code can predict everything from income to social class to life expectancy. White, wealthy residents of northern neighborhoods such as Laurelhurst live 13 years longer than their poorer neighbors of color in the southern neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown. Air and soil pollution has disproportionately affected Seattle’s communities of color for decades, but now a group of University of Washington researchers is working with those communities to understand how COVID-19 makes a dire situation worse.

A study from the UW’s Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment, or the EDGE Center, found King County’s highest rates of COVID-19 occurred in the south suburban areas of Auburn, Kent and Burien, near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Those disparities extend to the city of Seattle proper, where 5% to 8% positive rates of COVID-19 were concentrated in the South Seattle neighborhoods of South Park, Delridge and Rainier Valley. (By comparison, more affluent northern parts of Seattle saw positive coronavirus cases in only 3% of the population tested.)

For people already experiencing higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancer, COVID-19 compounds their level of risk. But it also presents opportunities for grassroots organizations to address long-standing racial barriers to health care and investment, all while empowering a community to raise awareness and push for political change through youth citizen science projects that monitor the pollution in their own backyards.


Watch the most recent episode of Crosscut’s “The New Normal” series. Anjum Hajat, assistant professor of epidemiology, and BJ Cummings, community engagement manager for the UW Superfund Research Program, are interviewed.

Originally written for Crosscut.
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